Cover photo for post Why Unconferences are Superior to Conferences

Why Unconferences are Superior to Conferences

Fresh from the exhilarating Web Engineering Unconference Europe (#WEUC), my appreciation for the unconference format over traditional conference setups has been rekindled. Don't misunderstand me — I do relish well-organized conferences. However, when faced with a choice between a conference and an unconference, my preference is unequivocal. If genuine people interaction on a level playing field, hands-on experience sharing, and grounded knowledge transfer resonate with you, you'll want to consider this too. In this article, I elucidate why.

For those unfamiliar with the term unconference, I direct you to the definition provided by the stellar BOOT e.V team, also the orchestrators of the awesome #WEUC (kudos!).

Thanks and kudos for to photos used in this article go to Joschua Ziethen.

Only Interested People

The wall of topics to select from.The wall of topics to select from.

Every conference has a swarm of individuals genuinely interested in the central topic, yet there's invariably a segment who are not. These folks are often dispatched by their supervisors to learn or represent. Unfortunately, some emanate an aura of ennui or even destructiveness, casting a pall of inactivity over the audience, making engagement a tough row to hoe for speakers.

This scenario is alien to any unconference or barcamp setup. Individuals gravitate to these forums driven by intrinsic motivation or, at the very least, a keen interest in the topic. The lion's share of attendees embodies a spirit of interactivity and collaborative knowledge exploration. The absence of a rigid pre-built schedule deters traditional "bosses" from consigning employees to an unconference against their will.

(Although some companies dispatch their teams to unconferences, these firms generally foster a culture of curiosity and interactivity. They would not flout their employees' intrinsic motivation.)

No Hierarchy

A typical conference is a tapestry of diverse groups: the attendees, forming the largest contingent, are there to absorb insights from the speakers — a significantly smaller group — and some aim to network. Speakers, often there to rub elbows with their ilk (I've observed this in the realms of PHP, web engineering, and eCommerce), or promote their enterprises, do both usually. While many fraternize with attendees during breaks, some merely breeze in for their talks and the typically elitist "speakers' dinner" or the like. Then there are the booth proprietors and sponsors, many akin to Ferengi (TM), and lastly the indefatigable organizers.

In stark contrast, an unconference erases these demarcations. Every attendee has the prerogative to propose a talk, discussion round, panel … or to request one — a feat unattainable in a conventional conference. Regular conference speakers may grace unconferences, but here they are peers among peers. Eschewing a speakers' dinner, unconferences feature inclusive events for all. Breaks are pivotal, fostering an open and constructive milieu. Sponsors, blending in seamlessly, abstain from hard-selling, and booths are conspicuously absent.

Imperfection is Beautiful

Bastian and Toby busy hacking and explaining.Bastian and Toby busy hacking and explaining.

At a classical conference, speakers, organizers, and attendees chase one pivotal goal: well-curated and polished content. Despite the eleventh-hour slide preparations (ahem), speakers unveil well-structured, pertinent content with eye-catching visualizations. A major chunk of these talks adopt a 1-to-many frontal presentation style.

Conversely, while not compromising on quality, the preparatory phase and the nature of talks at an unconference are markedly diverse. Yes, some speakers deliver talks based on prepared slides, but they are likely a minority, probably not exceeding a third. The remainder is a delightful melange of impromptu talks, discussion rounds, live coding/hacking sessions, and more. Unconferences also serve as fertile grounds for trialing new talks, embracing the unknown regarding their direction, structure, and so forth.

Let me share a few examples:

Am I insane?

For #WEUC 2023, Andy Ziethen and I brainstormed some keywords for a talk dubbed "Am I insane? / Bin ich verrückt?". We harbored clear objectives and a rough blueprint for this session, aimed at enlightening on mental health, sharing personal journeys, and underscoring the imperative of de-stigmatizing mental health issues in leadership.

Upon proposing this talk, our friend Judith Andresen, a former sufferer turned therapist, offered to contribute. Over lunch, we fleshed out the concept, culminating in an enlightening interview-style session on mental health. The reception was so heartwarming that Andy and Judith orchestrated a sequel the following day to delve deeper into certain topics and allocate more time for discussion.

Create a Remote Environment That Does Not Suck

I've toyed with this talk idea for years and finally pitched it to last week. So I suggested it for #WEUC, too. Once it was selected, I scrambled to craft some slides. Despite its imperfections — misjudged timing and overlooked key points — the presentation morphed into a valuable exchange between remote work veterans and novices. Far from being disheartened by my inability to cover all planned material, attendees voted for a follow-up session the next day (regrettably clashing with the second part of the mental health talk).

Migrate Toby's Private Website to Its Own Kubernetes Cluster

Skipping the nitty-gritty (cliff hanger), my friend Bastian Hofmann and I continued a whimsical yet enlightening hacking session initiated at FrOSCon earlier this year. Upon getting the green light (and no, my persuading attendees about my personal need for the session had nothing to do with it!), Basti and I carved out an hour for preparation. Subsequently, he navigated me through establishing my very own Kubernetes cluster on Hetzner within an hour, utilizing RKE2 — an exhilarating experience indeed!

Focus on the Breaks

An unconference's heart beats in its breaks. Sometimes more effective, flourish during these intermissions. Whether over a steaming cup of coffee or a cool beverage, a snack, during lunch, or amid the evening events, networking is the lifeblood, unfolding effortlessly throughout various professional and personal conversations.

That said, I will book next years #WEUC trip as soon as the date is announced.